Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
A few weeks ago I asked a Pakistani diplomat what was, among the multiple threats facing the country, the single biggest challenge?
It wasn’t al Qaeda or the Taliban, it wasn’t the United States as many Pakistanis believe. And it wasn’t even India, for long the existential threat the military and succeeding generations of politicians have invested blood and treasure to checkmate.
It was the economy which has virtually ground to a halt as the global recession erodes exports and investment, the diplomat said. Fix the power shortages, win investors back and get the economy moving, the tide of militancy could begin to be pushed back.
You could of course argue that the miitancy itself has sapped the economy and if it weren’t for the militants, Pakistan would have done far better . So tackle them first, and the economy would take care of itself. In the light of the attacks of last week and this, that certainly would seem to be an overiding immediate objective.
Very roughly summarised, this 21st century version of the domino theory suggests that a victory for Islamist militants in Afghanistan would so embolden them that they might then overrun Pakistan – a far more dangerous proposition given its nuclear weapons.
An attack on the headquarters of the Pakistan Army in the city of Rawalpindi has highlighted the country’s vulnerability to a backlash from Islamist militants in the Pakistani Taliban as it prepares an offensive against their stronghold in South Waziristan. It follows a suicide bombing in Peshawar which prompted Interior Minister Rehman Malik to say that ”all roads are leading to South Waziristan.”
But what is perhaps more troubling about the attack is not so much the backlash from the Pakistani Taliban (the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP) holed up in the Waziristan tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, but rather suggestions of growing co-operation between al Qaeda-linked groups there and those based in Punjab, the heartland of Pakistan.
Afghanistan has wasted little time in accusing Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency of being behind a bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on Thursday.
Asked by PBS news channel whether Kabul blamed Pakistan for the bombing, Afghan ambassador to the United States Said Jawad said: ”Yes, we do. We are pointing the finger at the Pakistan intelligence agency, based on the evidence on the ground and similar attacks taking place in Afghanistan.”
According to Dawn newspaper, the Pakistan Army is poised to launch a major military operation in South Waziristan, stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban.
It quotes senior military and security officials as saying that the army would launch what it called “the mother of all battles” in the coming days.
The first big suicide bombing in Pakistan this week since the slaying of Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S.-missile strike had a particularly nasty edge to it.
The attack in Torkham, a post on the main route for moving supplies to NATO and American forces in Afghanistan, took place just before dusk, as a group of tribal police officers prepared to break the Ramadan fast on the lawn outside their barracks.
Bruce Riedel, who led a review of the “Af-Pak” strategy for the Obama administration, says the United States must now target Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, following the apparent death of the chief of the Pakistani Taliban this month.
The one-eyed, intensely secretive founder of the Afghan Taliban is a much more elusive and important player in the “terror syndicate” attacking Pakistan, Afghanistan and the NATO mission in Afghanistan than Baitullah Mehsud, reportedly killed in a U.S. drone strike, Riedel says.
Who is Pakistan’s biggest threat? Not the Taliban, not even India, but the United States, according to an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis surveyed in a poll just out.
On the eve of the 62nd anniversary of Pakistan’s creation, the Gallup Pakistan poll offers a window into the mind of a troubled, victimised nation. And it surely must make for some equally uncomfortable reading in the United States, led at this time by a president who has sought to reach out to the Muslim world and distance himself from the foreign policy adventurism of his predecessor.
The obvious question to ask about the apparent death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone attack (apart from the question of proving his death) is what, or who, is next? Does the Pakistan Army still go into South Waziristan to fight the Taliban, or does it consider it “mission accomplished”? And after apparently eliminating a militant leader who had focused on targetting Pakistan, will it now go after other militants whose main area of operation is Afghanistan?
As discussed in my last post, Pakistan’s military offensive in South Waziristan was framed in the context of a punitive mission against Mehsud based on Raj-era notions of retribution, and was therefore quite different from its operation in Swat, which aimed to re-occupy territory seized by the Taliban and restore the writ of the state. So if Mehsud is indeed dead, the Pakistan Army may already have met its objective.